Caring Currents

New Alzheimer's Breakthroughs, The Cliff Notes Version

Last updated: Aug 01, 2008

Banner head.jpg

If you've noticed the word Alzheimer's all over the recent news, it's not just because your radar is naturally more attuned as a caregiver. The 2008 International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease has been taking place in Chicago all week.

What's worth knowing? Here's a handy summary of some of the biggest findings presented.

What Might Be a Risk Factor for Alzheimer's

  • Thyroid hormones, in women: Very high or very low levels of thyrotropin seem to double the odds of Alzheimer's. WHAT IT MEANS: Those with a history of thyroid problems should get them controlled.
  • Metabolic syndrome: High blood pressure/highcholesterol/high blood sugar/belly fat equals a 35 percent greater risk. WHAT IT MEANS: Well, it's another big warning about "shaping up".
  • Your family history: If Mom had late-onset Alzheimer's , you may have inherited a deficiency in how your brain processes glucose. WHAT IT MEANS: We already knew there's a family link, but if it's your mom rather than your dad who has the disease, it's a louder warning sign to stay fit and mentally engaged.
  • Being single, living alone in your 40s, 50s: You're twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's, possibly because of fewer daily social interactions; three times as likely if you divorce and remain single. WHAT IT MEANS: Be nice to your mate. First of its kind study .

What Might Help Detect Alzheimer's

  • MRI: There's lots of work being done to use imaging for earlier detection. WHAT IT MEANS: Unclear for now, but promising.
  • Biomarkers: Discovery of a new enzyme called BACE-1 , which affects the development of the amyloid proteins that gunk up the brain, causing Alzheimer's. Others are looking at CD-69, a protein involved in white blood cells, to distinguish types of the disease. WHAT IT MEANS: Could lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment, but pending a lot more research into tests and drugs.

What May Help Treat Alzheimer's

  • Exercise: Still more evidence that more physically fit Alzheimer's victims have less brain atrophy. WHAT IT MEANS: Movement is good, even after a diagnosis.
  • Rember: This tau-tackling drug (tau is a protein, but the more commonly studied protein is beta-amyloid) halted brain deterioriation by, for the first time, breaking up the protein tangles in the brain. WHAT IT MEANS: Lots of excitement, but still several years from the market, pending more study. Expect more interest in tau targets, now that decades of beta-amyloid drugs have failed.
  • Dimebon: The other big newsy drug , an old antihistamine once used in Russia, which stabilized mental decline for 18 months, especially in those who took the drug early and without other drugs, and with no apparent side effects. WHAT IT MEANS: Sounds too good to be true, but it's unclear to scientists how the drug works; this was just a first trial and more research must be done.
  • Blood pressure drugs: Angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs) were more effective than other meds for blood pressure or cardiovascular disease in preventing delirum in dementia patients, especially those who had had strokes. WHAT IT MEANS: Sheds insight into the role of blood vessels in the brain.
  • Dementia drugs: Taking them longterm seems to add to life expectancy. WHAT IT MEANS: Common dementia drugs may add years; no word on quality of life from this study.
  • Other drugs: There's no shortage of research and clinical trials being done in the chase to find a cure. WHAT IT MEANS: There's lots of testing but no clear consensus on a single pathway.

What Might Prevent Alzheimer's

  • Statins: People at high risk for Alzheimer's who took cholesterol-lowering statins before they had dementia all reduced their risk in a longterm study on Mexican-Americans. WHAT IT MEANS: More evidence that heart-health and Alzheimer's are somehow linked.
  • Taking insulin plus a medication if you have diabetes:  People with diabetes who took a drug for the disease along with insulin showed 80 percent fewer brain plaques postmortem. WHAT IT MEANS: Big difference! Likely to spark more research on insulin pathways in the brain.
  • A tendency to ruminate: Midlife men developed dementia 40 percent less often if they were habitual overthinkers . WHAT IT MEANS: All that worrying about your parents does have an up side!